Russian Intervention in the Syrian Civil War
Russian Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

By Mark Katz

What impact is Russia's diplomatic and military intervention having in Syria? We have to wait and see, says Mark Katz. At the very least, however, Moscow's involvement should improve the Assad regime's prospects for survival, much to the annoyance of Sunnis in the Middle East and closer to home.

After having surprised the world in 2014 with his annexation of Crimea and support for secessionists in eastern Ukraine, Putin has surprised the world once again in 2015 with his military intervention in the ongoing Syrian civil war as well as his stepped up diplomatic efforts (including a—yet again—surprise meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad) to resolve it.

Moscow had been backing the Assad regime against its opponents ever since opposition arose there in 2011. Up until recently, though, Moscow tended to downplay its involvement in Syria, claiming that Russian weapons shipments were being made “under existing contracts” (which were apparently open-ended) predating the rebellion.

But with the Assad regime losing ground to its opponents, Moscow significantly ramped up its support for Assad since late September 2015. On October 2, 2015, The New York Times cited the Russian Defense Ministry as stating that 50 Russian aircraft and 2,000 Marines had been deployed to Syria. Russian aircraft began bombing missions against opponents of the Assad regime at the end of September 2015. One type of Russian aircraft deployed to Syria, the Su-30—is capable of engaging other aircraft in addition to ground targets. As neither ISIS nor any other Syrian opposition groups possess aircraft, many observers see the purpose of deploying these Su-30s as being to deter American and Coalition aircraft from creating a no-fly zone or flying anywhere near where Russian aircraft are operating.[1]

While the Russian military presence may grow further, Putin has indicated that he does not intend for Russian ground forces to become engaged in the Syrian conflict “for now.” On October 5, though, the chairman of the Duma’s armed forces committee, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, suggested that “volunteer” ground forces consisting of veterans who had fought in eastern Ukraine “cannot be stopped” from going to Syria.[2] Other Russian officials quickly denied that Moscow was calling for volunteers to fight in Syria. Komoyedov (a member of the Communist Party) backtracked on his statement and even suggested that the Kremlin was blocking Russian volunteers from going to Syria.[3] Whether any “volunteers” will actually arrive in Syria is not yet clear.

Moscow has also launched a diplomatic and public relations campaign (including a speech by Putin himself to the UN General Assembly) warning of the common threat from ISIS, declaring Assad’s security services to be the strongest force confronting it, criticizing Western and Middle Eastern governments calling for Assad to step down as having no realistic alternative to him, and inviting others to join (or at least not oppose) Putin’s and Assad’s efforts to combat ISIS.[4] Putin’s claim that Russian forces in Syria are combating ISIS, though, have been undercut by numerous Western government and Syrian opposition claims that Russian forces have actually been bombing other opposition groups (including American-backed ones).[5] Moscow, though, insists that it is targeting “terrorists.”

In addition, four countries—Russia, Iran, Syria, and the U.S.-backed government in Iraq—announced that they would share intelligence regarding the Islamic State.[6]

On October 7, Russian naval vessels stationed in the southern Caspian Sea launched cruise missiles that over flew Iranian and Iraqi territory to strike targets in Syria. One Western military analyst noted that this was an unusual move since these targets could have been struck by Russian aircraft stationed in Syria which were much closer to them.[7] This action, though, has not been completely smooth. It was widely reported that four of the Russian cruise missiles fired from the Caspian fell on Iranian territory.[8] Further, the Iraqi government declared that it was not informed by Moscow about Russian missiles overflying Iraqi territory [9] (apparently their intelligence cooperation does not extend to sharing information about Russian military actions).

Overall, though, Russian actions have had positive results from Moscow’s viewpoint. With Moscow’s help, Assad’s forces are no longer on the defensive vis-à-vis their opponents, and have been able to go on the offensive against them.[10] And while probably related more to the poor design of the endeavor rather than Russia’s actions, the Obama Administration has ended its effort to train Syrian opposition forces.[11] Further, Washington and Moscow finally signed a “deconfliction agreement” on October 19 aimed at avoiding close encounters between their aircraft over Syria.[12]

Although it is too early to tell just what practical effect Russian military activity in Syria will have, at the very least it should increase the Assad regime’s prospects for survival as well as regaining some of the territory Damascus had lost. On the diplomatic front, Putin’s moves have also had an impact favorable to Moscow. Some Western government leaders, including Angela Merkel, have joined Putin in declaring that Assad has an important role to play in the battle against ISIS, and thus should not have to step down.[13] Even US Secretary of State Kerry has indicated that while Assad should go, he does not need to do so right away.[14] Furthermore, Russian intervention in Syria appears to have played a part in inducing the U.S. government to drop its objections to Iran participating in the ongoing negotiations in Vienna aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict.[15]

In addition to preserving the Assad regime, Putin’s moves in Syria may be aimed at ending Russia’s isolation from the West resulting from their disagreements over Ukraine. Moscow now calls for joining with Western as well as other governments in a “united front” against ISIS. Helping Putin persuade at least some European governments to regard Putin’s actions favorably is their growing discomfort with the influx of Syrian refugees. While Western governments and publics may see Assad as unacceptable in the abstract, if working with him could help stem the flow of refugees, then many could well see Assad as the lesser of two evils compared to ISIS.

Yet despite all the initial successes that Putin’s new policy toward Syria have had (and may still have), there are many challenges that Moscow faces there going forward.

While the media have hyped how massive the Russian military presence in Syria has grown to, it is really fairly small—indeed, it is smaller than the current American military presence in Iraq aimed at combating ISIS. In that the small American presence in Iraq has not yet proved successful in defeating ISIS there, it is difficult to see how an even smaller Russian presence in Syria can successfully do so in Syria even if it were actually focusing its attacks on that group.

Indeed, there have been persistent reports that, long before the recent Russian intervention, the Assad regime was not actually fighting ISIS (or at least, not very much), but has been focusing its efforts on combating its other opponents which have been receiving aid from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in particular.[16] While these three had previously been working at cross purposes by supporting opposition groups opposed to one another, more recently they have coordinated their actions and brought about greater cooperation among opposition groups—which is partly why the latter were able to gain ground against the Assad regime in recent months.[17] Reports that Russian aircraft are targeting non-ISIS opposition forces more than ISIS, then, may indicate that Moscow and Damascus have made similar assessments about which opposition groups pose the most serious threat to the Assad regime. But if Moscow and Damascus focus on the non-ISIS opposition to Assad, then the Russian presence in Syria will not weaken ISIS, but may actually strengthen it vis-à-vis other opposition movements. Indeed, there have very recently been reports that Russian attacks on other opposition movements have actually enabled ISIS to gain ground in Syria. [18]

Further, to the extent that Russian aid is used to target Assad’s other opponents, their external supporters will not be pleased, and may well increase aid to them. Saudi and other Arab officials have also expressed fears that the Russian actions in Syria will result in more money and volunteers going to ISIS and Al Qaeda. Opposition groups Russian forces target may well respond by attacking Russian personnel in Syria. Indeed, the 4,000 or more jihadists from the former Soviet Union that Putin has claimed are fighting in Syria[19] might be inclined to focus their attacks on Russian personnel in particular.

It should also be noted that while the flow of Syrian refugees migrating to Europe may be inducing European governments to look more favorably on Putin’s call for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict which includes Assad, his internal Syrian opponents are unlikely to be moved by Europe’s plight. Additionally, while Putin may claim to be pursuing the broader goal of combating ISIS in Syria, the non-ISIS opposition is likely to see his real aim as to weaken and defeat them. This will not reduce the skepticism that they have long had about Putin’s proposals that they negotiate with Assad. And despite their rivalry with ISIS, other Syrian opposition movements continue to see Assad as their main enemy, and act accordingly. It should also be noted that mass migration from Syria does not just reduce the number of young men available to fight against the Assad regime, but also the number available to fight for it.

In addition, while Western governments might be more amenable to a negotiated settlement including Assad, Saudi Arabia in particular is not likely to become so. The Saudis are focused on what they see as an existential threat from Iran. They see the Assad regime, the Baghdad regime, and Hezbollah as Iranian allies as well. Highly skeptical that the Iranian nuclear accord will lead to a reduction in Iran’s regional ambitions, they do not welcome increased Russian support for Iran’s allies in Syria.[20]

In a surprise move, though, the Saudi defense and foreign ministers met with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow on October 11 where it was announced that Russia and Saudi Arabia would “cooperate” in Syria. But a high level Saudi source said afterward that, “The Russian intervention in Syria will engage them in a.sectarian war,” and that, “Assad should leave and the Saudis will continue strengthening and supporting the moderate opposition in Syria.”[21]

In yet another surprise move, Syrian President Assad met with Putin in Moscow on October 20. In what was his first known trip outside of Syria since the outbreak of the war there in 2011, Assad thanked Putin for Russian support, and Putin talked about the need for a political settlement. [22] This immediately gave rise to speculation that Moscow might be ready to, eventually, nudge Assad out of office in order to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict with part of the Syrian opposition. But while Moscow has indicated a willingness to hold early elections in Syria and even provide air support for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (an offer this group is highly suspicious of ), Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has also made clear that Moscow is not willing to push Assad out of power.[23]

With Moscow and Riyadh continuing to hold very different views on the future of Assad, then, reports of increased Saudi-Russian cooperation on Syria do not appear to be promising.

What all this suggests is that while Russia’s increased military involvement in the Syrian conflict could delay or even prevent the Assad regime from falling, Moscow’s efforts may not be sufficient to enable the Assad regime to prevail over its opponents or reach an agreement with them. Putin’s intervention in Syria, then, threatens to become an expensive, long-term commitment that can at best result in stalemate so long as Russian forces remain there, and the downfall of the Assad regime if they are withdrawn (or perhaps even if they are not).

Furthermore, in that the Assad regime is dominated by Syria’s Alawite minority and is opposed by Syria’s Sunni Arab majority in particular, Putin’s support for Assad runs the risk of increasing resentment and hostility toward Russia not just on the part of Sunnis in Syria, but throughout the Sunni Arab and Muslim worlds. Russia’s relations with Turkey have already deteriorated significantly as a result of Russian overflights of Turkish territory. [24] In addition, Moscow’s close association with Shi’a Iran in supporting the Alawite minority regime in Syria risks Sunni governments and publics in the Arab world and Turkey seeing Russia as a friend of what they regard as their main regional adversary. Nor will Moscow’s interests be advanced if its actions in Syria, like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, result in an outpouring of Sunni Arab (and perhaps non-Arab) support for those fighting against the Moscow-backed Assad regime. Even worse, there may be those in the Arab and Muslim world who conclude that the best way to get Russia out of the Middle East is to support Muslim opposition inside of Russia. In early October 2015, dozens of Saudi clerics called on Arab and Muslim countries to support a jihad not just against the Assad regime, but also its Iranian and Russian backers. [25]

The Western press has repeatedly observed that while the U.S. and its European allies may oppose the Russian air campaign in Syria, they appear powerless to stop it. But if, as some speculate, one of Putin’s aims in increasing Russian involvement in Syria was to distract the West from their opposition to his policies in Ukraine and actually find a basis for joint cooperation in opposing ISIS, widespread reports that Russian forces are mainly attacking non-ISIS targets are likely to prevent the achievement of that goal. But even if Western governments were willing to cooperate with Moscow in achieving a negotiated settlement between the Assad regime and some of its opponents, it is not clear that Russia, America, and Europe together could persuade major opposition groups and their regional supporters (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) to “share power” in a regime still headed by Assad. Moscow might have a better chance of achieving this if it were able to persuade Assad to step aside, but so far, Putin has not been willing to do this. Indeed, he may not be able to if Iranian support for Assad remains strong.

Putin, then, has succeeded in dramatically inserting Russian military forces into the Syrian civil war as well as engaging in a flurry of high level meetings on how to resolve. It is doubtful, though, that he can end the conflict either militarily or diplomatically—or avoid the costs and consequences of involvement in a quagmire if he can do neither.

Notes

 [1] Andrew E. Kramer, “As Russia Returns to Middle East, A Look at Some of Its Weapons,” The New York Times, October 2, 2015.

[2] Andrew E. Kramer, Helene Cooper, and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Kremlin Says Russian ‘Volunteer’ Forces Will Fight in Syria,” The New York Times, October 5, 2015.

[3] “Russia Says No Ground Troops in Syria, Not Recruiting Volunteers,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 6, 2015.

[6] Jethro Mullen and Yousuf Basil, “Iraq Agrees to Share Intelligence with Russia, Iran and Syria,” CNN, September 28, 2015.

[7] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “These Are the Cruise Missiles Russia Just Sent Into Syria,” Stars and Stripes, October 7, 2015.

[8] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Pentagon: Some Russian Cruise Missiles Crashed in Iran,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2015.

[9] Loveday Morris, “Iraq Says It Was Not Warned about Russian Missiles Crossing Its Airspace,” The Washington Post, October 9, 2015.

[10] Anne Barnard and Andrew E. Kramer, “Russian Cruise Missiles Help Syrians Go on the Offensive,” The New York Times, October 7, 2015, .

[11] Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015, .

[12] Carla Babb, “US-Russia Memo on Air Safety Over Syria Takes Effect,” Voice of America, October 20, 2015,

[13] “Merkel Says Assad Must Have Role in Syria Talks,” Deutsche Welle, September 24, 2015, .

[14] Carol Morello, “Kerry Says Syria’s Assad Has to Go, but U.S. Is Flexible as to When,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2015.

[15] Thomas Erdbrink, Sewell Chan, and David E. Sanger, “After a U.S. Shift, Iran Has a Seat at Talks on War in Syria,” The New York Times, October 28, 2015, .

[16] Mark N. Katz, “Who Is Putin Really Protecting Assad From?” LobeLog, September 24, 2015, .

[18] Anne Barnard and Thomas Erdbrink, “ISIS Makes Gains in Syria Territory Bombed by Russia,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015, .

[19] Andrew Roth and Erin Cunningham, “In Rare Foreign Trip, Assad Flies to Moscow to Meet with Putin,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2015, .

[20] For more on Saudi-Russian relations, see Mark N. Katz, “Saudi-Russian Cooperation: To Be or Not To Be,” The Arab Weekly, August 28, 2015, .

[22] Andrew Roth and Erin Cunningham, “In Rare Foreign Trip, Assad Flies to Moscow to Meet with Putin,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2015, .

[23] Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova, “Russia Says Wants Syria Elections, Ready to Help Free Syrian Army,” Reuters, October 25, 2015, .

[24] Tim Arango, “Russia Military’s Actions in Syria Cause Rift with Turkey,” The New York Times, October 6, 2015, .

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